NASCAR needed some Texas-size drama
Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
Fort Worth, TX (Sports Network) -
The next chapter in NASCAR's "Boys, Have At It" season was written during a dramatic day...and night...of racing Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton's brawl on the backstretch, Kyle Busch's inappropriate gesture towards officials on pit road, a pit crew swap between Gordon and Jimmie Johnson's teams, and Denny Hamlin taking over the points lead after winning the race made for a NASCAR affair unlike any other in recent memory.
The media covering NASCAR certainly have a lot of stories from Texas to chomp on until next Sunday's penultimate race of the season at Phoenix. Meanwhile, NASCAR likely will shell out its share of "unsportsmanlike conduct" penalties later this week.
Gordon and Burton's physical confrontation did not match up to the infamous fist fight between Cale Yarborough and brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison at the conclusion of the 1979 Daytona 500, but it definitely entertained the estimated crowd of 156,000 at Texas and made for good water cooler chat for NASCAR fans the day after.
When the caution flag waved for an incident involving Martin Truex Jr. on lap 191, Burton inadvertently bumped Gordon from behind, causing both drivers to slam hard into the wall.
Gordon hopped out of his heavily damaged car and walked over towards Burton before he shoved Burton with both of his hands. NASCAR officials separated the two before their skirmish got out of control.
"I've experienced a lot of things in this sport, but I can't say I've experienced anything like that before and from somebody that I've had a lot of respect for," Gordon said. "Jeff Burton is a great race car driver, but I was just so mad that I was just trying to think of how I could show him my displeasure. I wanted to do a lot more than that, but I thought better of it."
Burton took blame for the wreck and was not dumbfounded by Gordon's action.
When Kyle Busch returned to the pits to serve his drive-through penalty, he showed his displeasure towards officials by giving them "the finger."
"I wasn't at all surprised," Burton said. "I went to go see him, because I knew he was going to be mad, and I fully expected it. I don't blame him. Hell, I would have been mad if I were him too."
It is shocking that two of NASCAR's most respected drivers scrapped, but then again, it's been a long time since both drivers have won a race and frustration is setting in. Gordon currently is sixth in Chase points, while Burton sits last in the 12-driver field.
What comes as no surprise is Busch's latest display of emotion on the track. Prior to Gordon and Burton's incident, Busch got turned around and sustained damage to his left rear. While trying to remain on the lead lap, he was caught speeding off of pit road after stopping for repairs.
When Busch returned to the pits to serve his drive-through penalty, he showed his displeasure towards officials by giving them "the finger." So much for freedom of speech, as NASCAR slapped Busch with a two-lap penalty for his gesture.
"I'm sorry I lost my cool to everybody on this team, to everybody at NASCAR and all of my guys that support me," Busch said. "It's just so frustrating the way that you have such a fast race car, and then you get spun out, and you don't expect to lose your cool, I guess."
Then there's the swap of Johnson's crew members with Gordon's squad, something that will be talked about for a while, even after the Chase concludes later this month in Homestead, FL.
Johnson had a fast enough car, but his No.48 pit crew probably cost him a chance to win. Johnson lost valuable track position several times after mishaps occurred during his pit stops. Following Gordon's departure from the race, his crew moved over to Johnson's No.48 pit area and took over responsibilities from there.
"We've been lacking, and we need to get it straightened out, and it was a good wake-up call for the guys, if anything, to bring [Gordon's] crew in and let them do their job and let our guys watch," Johnson said. "I really do care for these guys with the bottom of my heart. They're my guys. But we have to perform. We can't come down pit road and lose 10 spots every stop. That's just killing us."
Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, said after the race that he was the one who made the crew change decision.
On Monday, Hendrick Motorsports announced that Johnson and Gordon's teams will switch pit crews for the remaining two races.
It comes at a critical time when Johnson's bid for a record-extending fifth straight Cup championship is in jeopardy.
Hamlin's win compared to a ninth-place finish for Johnson at Texas allowed Hamlin to claim a 33-point lead over Johnson.
Despite a sluggish start, Hamlin's car came to life when day turned into night and the lights shined brightly around the 1.5-mile Texas oval. Hamlin grabbed the lead with 29 laps left and then survived Matt Kenseth's spirited battle for the win during a three-lap shootout to the finish.
"We're on the cusp of trying to get our first championship, and as long as we keep doing what we've been doing, we should be okay," Hamlin said.
With 59 points separating Hamlin from third-place Kevin Harvick, expect the drama to escalate for the final two weeks of the season.